The Catholic Thing
Coming into Christmas Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 17 December 2012

I had a couple of Catholic friends when I was growing up in Ohio: one was our high school quarterback, the greatest athlete I’ve ever known, and the other a girl I dated briefly and who went to a Catholic girls’ school a dozen miles from town. I never knew another Catholic until I was in my twenties and had become one myself.

When I was still a teenager, my older brother married a Jew, and for her first Christmas at our house, I hung ribbons from the living room ceiling near the Christmas tree. Attached to each was a card with some fact about the holiday: some of them sensible (I’d been to the town library) and some sappy. On one I wrote: “Christmas is the birthday of the Son of God.” My Presbyterian grandparents were very happy about that. “Charming,” my Methodist father told me, but warned there’d better not be any marks on the ceiling when I pulled off the tape.

About eight years later I was living in Hermosa Beach, California and frequenting a bookstore there called Either/Or. Among the books I found in the Eastern Religions section were several by Thomas Merton. A priest? Curious, I bought a copy of The Seven Storey Mountain, which propelled me into the Church.

Both in the books I read and the catechesis I received, I began to notice something never spoken of in the Protestant milieu in which I was raised. To be sure – as in that note for my sister-in-law – the words “Son of God” were front and center, but never had I encountered the word “Incarnation.”

Odd in a way, since Methodists are Trinitarians who believe in the “consubstantial humanity and divinity” of Jesus. Still, as Catholics know only too well, there is often a gap between doctrine and practice. My Protestant experience very much followed the “He was one of us” approach, and – given the absence of Mary from the life of the church – that meant it was the humanity of Jesus that dominated our sensibilities, to the point that I never heard anybody utter the words “Jesus is God,” let alone speak of the “Mother of God.”

In my mind, then, the Father was Zeus, Mary was Danaë, and Jesus was Perseus. I shared this insight with my dad, a college professor, and his inapt reply was, “When did you get interested in philosophy?” Well, his field was marketing.

Thus was I stunned by what I began reading about Catholicism – and hearing at Mass.

Madonna with Child by Francisco de Zurbarán (1658)

When a dogmatic statement was made in the church of my boyhood, it was via the Apostle’s Creed, although (if memory serves) the harrowing of hell was left out, and, regarding the Second Coming, included a phrase I still like: Catholics say Jesus “will come to judge the living and the dead,” whereas Methodists say “the quick and the dead.”

There was a cross but no corpus. It was, so it seemed to me later, very much a case of the kind of denatured Christianity that H. Richard Niebuhr described: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

So I converted. But I only really became a Catholic that first Christmas after I’d made my profession of faith. Back home in Ohio for the holidays, I walked uptown and then south on High Street, past the Methodist church, and another half mile or so to the neighborhood Catholic church into which I set foot that night for the first time ever. Midnight Mass was beginning.

The choir was no better than back at United Methodist, and the carols were the same. But in the plain and pared-down church of my youth I’d always had a sense – standing among the people (and not a lot of people at that) – of being quite alone. Now at standing-room-only St. Michael’s, among images of the brooding archangel and the statuary (most especially of Our Lady), I had a sense of coming home to a foreign family of faith, although one that still seemed to a few old friends a dangerous, warlike body with no place in America, its loyalties being elsewhere: a cult precisely because of our cultus.

The power of coming to Christmas as a Catholic, of witnessing and worshiping the mystery of the Incarnation, of God made man, made it impossible to suppress tears. All the hopes that slept in my heart for the first twenty-five years of my life were now fulfilled in manifest mysteries: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Creation; Incarnation. Yes, God became one of us, and the only things left to darken the horizon were sin and death. And in that regard, things get worse before suddenly getting better. So good, in fact, that the joy of His coming becomes ecstasy in his Resurrection. But that’s for Easter.

Now it’s Christmas coming.

Whoever you are: step out of doors tonight,
out of the room that lets you feel secure.
Infinity is open to your sight.
Whoever you are.
With eyes that have forgotten how to see
from viewing things already too well-known,
lift up into the dark a huge, black tree
and  put it in the heavens: tall, alone.
And you have made the world and all you see.
It ripens like the words still in your mouth.
And when at last you comprehend its truth,
then close your eyes and gently set it free.
            – Entrance by Ranier Maria Rilke (translated by Dana Gioia)

Brad Miner
 is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is the author of six books and is a former Literary Editor of National Review. The Compleat Gentleman, read by Christopher Lane, is available on audio.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (12)Add Comment
written by Clement Williams, December 17, 2012
Protestantism, in 'reforming' the Church, having left out out the Victim from the Altar of the Cross; forgot, left out or did not receive the Fullness of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, who came, as Jesus promised just before His Ascension, bearing His 7 gifts. The First 5 leading to The Last 2 of Piety/Humility and 'Holy Fear'/Awe of and Reverence for the Creator, The Lord of Hosts.
written by William Manley, December 17, 2012
I grew up a Catholic in a dry Protestant town. My Protestant friends knew the Bible. I knew the Baltimore catechism. Because there was no Catholic school in town I went to public school where I grew to love the Bible...via the "first thing in the morning" Bible readings in school, which occurred even before the Pledge of Allegiance. The damage done to our culture from the banning of school Bible reading is very, very significant.
written by Don Stacy, December 17, 2012
Mr. Miner - Very nice article. My journey into the Catholic Church was very similar to yours except I was in my 50s when the truth became obvious. Slow learner but a very happy and contented Catholic.
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, December 17, 2012
Here in Scotland, Christmas Day only became a public holiday in 1958 and the change was opposed by many Christians, claiming that, at the Reformation, the Church had been "purged of all superstitious observation of days"

That is the reason the Scots make such a big celebration of Hogmanay (New Year)which had no religious overtones to which the Kirk could object.

As Catholics, we kept both!
written by Mr. Levy, December 17, 2012
Mr. Miner:

Thank you very much for describing your personal experience of conversion. Such stories never fail to revivify me. I hope you will write more about it in the future.
written by Jack,CT, December 17, 2012
Mr Miner,
thanks for your "story home",as a caraddle
Catholic I find it Amazing we all find ourselves
I have so much respect for people who choose the
written by Ross Caughell, December 17, 2012
I am older than you by 50 years and I can remember saying "quick and the dead". I do not know when the Apostles' Creed got a language update but I remember being pleased when told quick meant alive. I served as an altar boy all during my elementary school years. I have great memories of the many masses and priests I served.
written by Ib, December 17, 2012
Yes, scripture should be assiduously read everyday, so that Christians in general may come to love the Word. But there's also a danger here, especially in the Protestant millieu that Mr. Manley found himself in as a child. I'll just provide a quote from Session 4 of the Council of Trent to remind Roman Cathoics that they have a greater responsibility toward the Holy Scripture than any Protestant does:

"Furthermore, to check unbridled spirits, it [the Council of Tent] decrees that no one relying on his own judgment shall, in matters of faith and morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, distorting the Holy Scriptures in accordance with his own conceptions, presume to interpret them contrary to that sense which holy mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge of their true sense and interpretation, has held and holds, or even contrary to the unanimous teaching of the Fathers, even though such interpretations should never at any time be published.
Those who act contrary to this shall be made known by the ordinaries and punished in accordance with the penalties prescribed by the law." (Celebrated on the eighth day of April, 1546 under Pope Paul III)
written by Brad Miner, December 17, 2012
Mr. Caughell: You can't possibly be 50 years older than I.
written by Bill Foley, December 18, 2012
The papal magisterium of the Catholic Church has always urged the faithful to read the Bible especially the Gospels. One of the encyclicals on the Bible even quotes St. Jerome: "He who is ignorant of the Bible is ignorant of Christ." The way to avoid any misinterpretation of the text is the following: "One should always read the Bible while sitting in the lap of holy Mother Church."
written by Therese Z, December 18, 2012
I'm in my 50's and I can remember "quick and the dead." It would have been before the 1970 changes to the Mass language.

I always kind of liked "quick." It sounded like we were darting quickly through life, like little fish.
written by Graham Combs, December 19, 2012
I grew up with the Book of Common Prayer and such phrases a "the quick and the dead" and the Eucharistic prayer response to "it is meet and right" of "it is meet and right and our bounden duty." Those words still come to me at Mass now that I'm Catholic. I'm afraid I became a Catholic too late to be entirely dis-enamoured of the poetry of the 1662 Prayer Book and the 1611 Holy Bible. Perhaps there's a special waiting room or purgatory for Anglican-Catholics. I could do much much worse.

And at Christmas that Anglican nostalgia is particularly alluring and moving.

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